(Continued from Part 1.)
The urgent drives out the merely important on a homestead
Maintenance is of critical importance. If you do not maintain the fencing, for example, you may find yourself chasing animals down a country road. That seems to happen often around these here parts. Someone’s horses or cows are always out. Dogs abound. I have a neighbor who brings their pregnant cows to the adjacent acreage to calve. I only had to track my neighbors down once to let them know a cow was out. The cow was peacefully grazing in the graveyard nearby! They have since repaired the fencing. Thankfully, there are no nearby bulls that want to bother my dairy girls. I’ve only had to chase pigs once down the road and that was because a gate was left open by some hired help. I had to have a couple of new fences put in and a couple of new gates. In a Spring storm, a large tree fell down next to my bigger barn and thankfully not on top of that barn. I would’ve cried a river if the barn roof had caved in. I still need to get a tree trimmer out here to clear out that area. Those trees provide wonderful shade but some are old and should be cut down. I have a long, gravel, driveway. After a few storms with torrential rains, my driveway pretty much washed out and now it’s filled with ruts. A couple of storms last Spring ripped up the ground cover in my garden, twice. Thankfully, no tornadoes touched down here, but did in a nearby town and the damage was horrible. No matter where you live, weather is a big deal and it will determine your workload and budget.
On a homestead, it’s not just the house maintenance that has to be kept up with. It’s the entire farm – fences, gates, roads, buildings. Think about it. So when you go shopping for that homestead, look at the land and buildings with a very critical eye.
I don’t consider cleaning up after pooping animals maintenance. LOL. I consider it a daily chore. Wherever there are animals, there is manure. If you rotationally graze the animals, as I try to do, and don’t keep them on a “dry lot” or stalled, the land pretty much heals itself. The manure acts as a fertilizer. But, there are times when the animals must be stalled or contained. You have to keep on top of those situations or your animals’ health will suffer. Animals aren’t meant to lay in their own piles – not even pigs. If you’ve ever shoveled out a barn by hand you come to understand why tractors are nice to have. I do not have one. If you have a lot of land, you have to mow, weed whack, cut down trees, and clear the land on a regular basis. After over two years on this land, I have discovered what types of things need to be done, and when, and I hire out the heavy work a few times a year. Estimate your costs for large equipment – can you afford that? Before buying that tractor, see if hiring out the work is cheaper in the long run. It might be.
There are SHTF moments on a farm. And when those moments arise, everything gets dropped to attend to the emergency. I have not had any catastrophic emergencies on the farm, but a few close calls with the dairy cows. When you live in the country it can be difficult to get a vet out to your farm, so you learn and learn quick. I have a small medical kit for animals that needs resupply before winter. Especially since I will have a winter calf and piglets born here. I have eyes on every single animal every day. I have learned to assess their status by just observing. You can’t just throw all the animals out into a field and hope for the best. You must spend time with them, look them over nose to tail – are they limping, eating, pooping, looking lethargic, clear-eyed, getting thin or too fat, runny nose, feel too warm? It’s almost like keeping watch over children. I have learned to check on every animal every day by incorporating it into daily chore time, and often during a “last check” in the evening walkabout. I know now what normal farm sounds are. Is that cow bawling because she’s in heat or is she stuck? That kind of thing. My dogs are my partners here. Their hearing is so good that they too have learned what a normal sound is and alert when something is not right. God bless the farm dogs.
I plan everything out, but the animals do not read the memos.
Planning and Quick Thinking
As a SHTF example, although not devastating, it required quick thinking and actions. I had purchased a breeding group of pigs, after purchasing two feeder pigs that I liked very much. For the breeding group, I was told that the sows were pregnant and would birth on such and such a date. As I was out doing chores, I noticed that one sow was definitely not bred since she and the boar had a thing going on. I wrote that date down since I’m sure she is bred now. I also noticed that the other sow had slowed down quite a bit, taking extra naps, and was developing a large udder, a month in advance of her supposed due date. Oh man, I wasn’t ready for piglets yet! My steer was scheduled to be picked up for his butcher date, on the same day I noticed the sow’s condition. And to top it off, the boar and his girlfriend had leaned so hard against a wall of their shelter that the whole thing was about to collapse. Think, think, think… Which thing do I fix first???
Well, getting a sow who might birth very soon into her “birthing suite” was the first priority. Thankfully, she knows her name and will follow me anywhere with promise of a treat. It’s not quite that simple though. I had to clean out a barn stall, lay down fresh bedding, and lots of it so she could nest, bring in a 30 gallon water trough, some fresh hay, a feed pan, strung out hundreds of feet of hoses to the barn. Then I moved her. But that was the stall I was going to corral my steer into so it was easy for him to be picked up. Fortunately, I had another stall cleaned out and prepared for one of my dairy girls who is due to calve this winter. (Note: Prepare everything in advance). So, the steer was coaxed into that stall with a grain treat, some fresh hay, and clean water. My neighbors, who are wonderful people, picked him up in their trailer since they also had some steers going to the processor on the same day. But, oh wait… I looked at the weather forecast and we were due to have below freezing temperatures (In October!). A reading of 25 F degrees in October just doesn’t happen here. It was actually 22 degrees on November 2nd.
Think, think, think…
To make a long story short, I have no electricity or water in my larger barn, so a hard freeze wrecks the plan of having a sow in that barn. All the water hoses that are strung out to that barn will freeze. And, the sow dumped her entire water trough over her first night in the barn. I quickly refilled her trough before the freeze. After the steer was picked up, I started on the shed barn that is closer to the house and closer to water. The cats and kittens were moved to another area, the shed barn had to be cleaned out, fresh bedding, hay, water trough, feed pan, electric fencing set up for her grazing area. All this had to be done before the storm arrived and temperatures dropped. Maybe I sound over dramatic, but that’s just too much work in a 24 hour period – at least for me. But I got it done anyway! And that, my friends, is why I look like something the cat dragged in. LOL.
We have no control over the weather folks. As much as I try to be prepared for “weather events”, I can only do so much in a short period of time.
By the way, animals have a habit of multiplying! I’m just now learning how to sell, butcher, or trade extra animals. The land cannot support what it cannot support. Your animals will end up with no natural food to eat if there are too many of them. I am overstocked currently and selling a number of animals. Finding a good home for them is a priority for me.
As an example, the weather has been weird this year (2023). We didn’t get enough rain early on to keep the pastures in good condition and a drier than normal summer. That, combined with having too many cows, caused me to bring hay in ($$$$). I added animals (pigs and meat birds). I suddenly had a ridiculous feed bill. Hay was costing around $320/month and the feed bill (because I source non-gmo grain for the animals) was hitting around $400/month. Those costs do not include bedding, vet services, breeding services, transportation costs, additional fencing (or electric fencing), etc. It adds up really fast and I suddenly was spending way more than I anticipated. The primary reason it was unanticipated is because of weather changes. It rains a lot here, until it doesn’t.
Things you may have not thought through
Onward… Tools are essential. When I first started out here, I bought lightweight battery-operated tools. I had a little pink hammer, screwdriver, and wrench. I called them “girly tools” and they were quickly replaced with a complete toolkit of “manly tools”. My lightweight tools just didn’t have the oomph to maintain a farm and I’ve mostly cast them aside. You need big tools and they are heavy and expensive. I’ve slowly acquired what I need as I’ve learned, and I’ve slowly built up the muscle mass to handle them. I am exceptionally proud that I can manhandle tools now, for the most part. I still don’t have the brute strength that is required to manage a farm, but I’ve come a long way baby.
Generally speaking, though, you need tools and the better tools cost good money, so don’t scrimp on tools. Thankfully, I’ve come to know a number of neighbors who have the big machines such as tractors, and skid steers, and hauling trailers and flatbed trailers. Getting to know your neighbors is as important as having the right tools. It’s also very important to hire your neighbors to help you. Never take advantage of a kindness. Most people out in the country don’t have a ton of money in the bank. That extra few hundred bucks helps them buy tools and repair things on their own farms. I am very fortunate that one of my neighbors, whom I purchase hay from, offered to take my steer to the butcher for me since he had two cattle going to the same butcher on the same day. He allowed me to pay for gas and refused anything else. He also noticed that one of my gates kept coming off the hinges, so he pulled out a wrench and hammer from his truck and just fixed it right quick. May the Lord bless him and his.
If you don’t have tools, you cannot quickly fix things that break when it really matters! Like, the pigs are out again! You can’t just stand there screaming and waving your hands.
Let’s talk about vehicles. I arrived here in a small car with a “hatchback”. My car used to be clean, neat, and polished. I’ve used it for hauling baby goats, hay, straw, animal feed, etc. It’s dirty inside. I drove it too close to a gate and scraped the side. I backed into the garage door frame and slightly crunched the back end. The nice thing about that little workhorse is it’s paid for, has all-wheel drive, only 70,000 miles on it and is supposed to keep running for another 150,000 miles. We’ll see. Truck prices were through the roof when I was looking, so there was no budget for a truck. This little car can zoom all over the farm delivering things to various spots. I find it quite humorous, actually. The other day I moved straw from one barn to another by loading the car with three bales at a time. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. And the job got done pretty quickly. Hilarious! I still have it in my mind to purchase a cruddy ol’ farm truck one of these days that just runs.
I have learned so much in such a short period of time. Firstly, it’s really tough to do it by yourself. Can you? Of course you can! I have and I will continue, Lord willing. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. However, a serious injury would be devastating. I am very careful of how I go about things. Safety first! I don’t go out to move cows or clean barns or repair fencing without carrying a big stick with me. I pay attention to “escape routes” and which animal is where. I don’t get myself trapped in a corner with no way out. I recently read a note from a friend who raises beautiful dairy cows on her farm. One day, out of the blue, one of those cows trapped her in a corner and beat the crap out of her (no horns involved or she would be dead). Her husband took her to Emergency and it’s been a long recovery for her. That cow was on a truck to the butcher the next morning.
Large animals are, well, large. If one of my 1000+ pound dairy cows decided to obliterate me, she could easily. Even when I milk the cows, I’m always watching those “kickers” – which is what I call the legs and feet. A good, swift, kick can knock you out, or break your nose, an arm, or or leg. The cows have really good aim. When I’m out with the pigs, the eyes in the back of my head are on that boar. He’s a sweetie, generally. But one time when he escaped and I was trying to get him to move back to his pen, he got aggressive. I had a big stick with me, but it scared him and made him even more aggressive. How I eventually got him back to where he belonged was by putting down the stick, taking a deep breath, and sweet-talking him, giving him treats, and he walked right beside me back to his pasture. Animals can hurt you out of fear, or injury, more than aggression.
You don’t have enough money to do everything you want to do, unless you are very resourceful or independently wealthy, in which case you can hire out the whole thing. Why get dirty?! You have to pick and choose. If you plan to sell enough beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, produce or anything else, you will almost always be in the negative. Be clear-eyed about your finances. Do the math. Don’t idealize your way into debt. It’s just not worth it. I realize a lot of farmers and ranchers will take on debt temporarily with the promise of a return and small profit down the road. And I assume, at that scale, they have some type of insurance for natural or manmade disasters. I personally will not take that kind of risk that forces me to sell the farm if things go horribly wrong. Basically, I’m saying, pay cash or don’t do it.
You are going to be tired, sore, and exhausted unless you’ve lived a life of manual labor that has provided you with the stamina and muscles you’ll need. What is your plan for self-care? Did you know that if you wear boots all the time, your feet are going to need extra care? Fungus, cracking heals, nails got too long? You need excellent socks, preferably a wool blend. No matter how many pairs of gloves you own, your hands are going to become chapped and cracked. Sunburned? Bug Bite? Strange rash? Allergies? An injury? You will be using your medical kit continuously.
One day when I was out working, something bit me on the back and I didn’t know it right away. I have a permanent scar in that place. The only thing I can think of is maybe there was a brown recluse spider hanging out in the overshirt I pulled on before going out to work. A tip: 3% hydrogen peroxide is my go-to for almost everything. It can penetrate the cells of the skin and can even heal Brown Recluse spider bites. I know because I’ve had several of those bites. Snakes… just watch where you are walking, always wear good boots, and don’t let areas of your farm that you need to frequent become a place for snakes.
Who has responsibility for what? In my case, it’s all on me, so I have learned that prioritization is critical. For instance, I’ve had a number of competing priorities in the same timeframe: a steer that needed to be corralled so he could be hauled to the butcher, a sow who will have piglets, feeder pigs who must be fenced into their own pig pen so the boar doesn’t try to mate with them, meat bird chicks outgrowing their small coop and must be moved to a larger, protected area, a couple of dairy cows that need to be pregnancy checked and disease tested before they move on to their new homes, meat bird chicks to be butchered, and a cow who will calve in the middle of the winter, some fences that needed to be moved and electrified, etc. Time moves so fast around here.
You will have to learn the phrase “good enough”. Sometimes you just can’t get to everything, so good enough will become the gold standard. I am a recovering perfectionist. This has been a hard lesson to learn. There are emotional and mental issues that need as much attention as the physical ones. It’s one thing to step back and look at that beautiful wood pile you just produced. It’s quite another to face the fact that you failed the farm in some way. The last two years I attempted to raise meat birds reflect my first big failures. I started with Cornish Cross. They stink – no two ways about it. Anyone who has raised that particular breed can attest to that. Their smell attracted every wild animal within miles around my farm. I started out raising 30 and ended up with maybe 8-10 on butchering day. The next year I decided to raise the beautiful Buff Orpingtons. They don’t smell at all, and yet, when they were about 3-4 months old a predator got into the double-fenced chicken run and wiped out all but two. And one of those two was recently killed by a predator because she flew out and went exploring. The predator didn’t bother the other chickens, just the ones small enough to grab and run off with.
My point is that you will have failures on your homestead. And you will have to do your best, forgive yourself, and move on. With every failure comes lessons. You have to do some root cause analysis when you fail, and then do your best to resolve the issues. The one thing I do not have on this farm, and will never have on this farm, is a bull. My fencing is great for the docile animal. It’s no match for a bull when one of my dairy cows goes into heat. A bull would be a nightmare where I live. I considered getting a bull last year when I was having trouble getting my Jersey cow pregnant. Thankfully I came to my senses and took her to a bull on a neighboring farm who did the job right away.
Decide in advance how you are going to handle the containment of animal feed, manure, rodents, and pests. Having zero farming experience I had no idea what to expect or what to do. I learned the hard way. I stacked bags of feed in the garage until a mouse/rat family took up residence right in the middle of the piled up bags of feed. I raced to the farm store and bought them out of feed containers – paid a whole lot more than I should have to solve a problem that became urgent. I put out rat poisoning, cleared the garage of clutter, set out traps, and took tainted feed bags to the dumps. An expensive day. Did you know that a feeder pig is big enough at 6 months old to knock the top off a galvanized steel trash can full of feed weighing approximately 150 lbs, dump it over, and have a feast? It’s true. Not only do your pigs need to be secured, but animal feed also needs to be in secured containers, inside of a secured building.
I still don’t know what to do with manure. I mean, intellectually I totally get it, but composting is not as simple as you think. For now, cow manure that accumulates in or around the barn has been piled over to one side for a later date. I’m hoping my neighbor with the skid steer will allow me to hire him to do some cleanup and get a proper composting system in place.
Tomorrow, I will give you the very good news about homesteading because you probably want to hear it by now. I sure do. Why the heck am I doing this?
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)